By Cherrie Bucknor and Dean Baker

Those of us unhappy with the Fed rate hike this month frequently point to the sharp drop in employment rates (EPOP) compared with the pre-recession level. The overall employment rate (the percentage of the adult population with jobs) is still down by more than 3.0 percentage points from pre-recession peaks. Even if the unemployment rate is not far above the pre-recession level, there remains a very large gap in the percent of the population that is working. This doesn't show up in the unemployment rate because many people have dropped out of the labor force and are not looking for work, and therefore are not counted as unemployed. 

One response is that because of the aging of the population many baby boomers are now retired and have no interest in working. A way to get around this issue is to restrict the comparison to the prime age population, people between the ages of 25–54. These people are not likely to be retired. This gives us pretty much the same story: the EPOP for prime age workers was down by 2.9 percentage points in November compared with its peak pre-recession level.

The next argument is that we have many prime age workers who have dropped out because they don't have the skills needed to find work in today's economy. This one might seem peculiar because these workers apparently did have the skills back in 2007 and the economy has not changed that much in the last eight years. But we can also test this one fairly easily.

If the drop in labor force participation was explained by less-skilled workers leaving the labor force then we should see most of the drop in employment rate among less-educated workers, with little or no change in employment rates for more educated workers. That is not what the data show.

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Source: Authors' analysis of Current Population Survey.

As can be seen, the overall EPOP is lower than the EPOP for people with college or advanced degrees. It has also dropped the most, falling by 3.3 percentage points from its 2007 level and 4.8 percentage points from its 2000 level. But the EPOP for prime age workers with college degrees has also fallen sharply, dropping by 1.7 percentage points from its 2007 level and 2.7 percentage points from the 2000 level. Even people with advanced degrees have seen substantial drops in employment with a decline in their EPOP of 1.6 percentage points from 2007 and 2.9 percentage points from 2000.

What should we make of these drops in employment among the most highly educated workers? We could twist the skills argument and say that even though these people are highly educated, they got their degrees in the wrong areas. Or, we could just say that we have a serious shortfall in demand in the economy and that it is not showing up in the unemployment rate because so many people have given up looking for work.

Or, we could say that millions of prime age workers suddenly decided they would take a long vacation. A shortfall in demand seems more likely and the Fed's rate hike does not help in this case.